From Bruff to Bruff: Ten Years of Continuity and Change in the Classic Bike Scene

James J. Ward

The community of classic motorcycle enthusiasts comprises many parts: longtime fans of a particular make or model, older riders returning to the sport with a revived interest in the bikes of their youth, younger riders tired of expensive look-alike machines that defy all attempts at DIY mechanics, organizers and participants in vintage racing, collectors’ shows, and swap meets, restoration specialists and suppliers of NOS equipment and quality reproduction parts, the auction circuit where high-rollers and gearheads looking for a new project rub shoulders, and—not least—anyone who knows the difference between a Black Prince and the Prince of Darkness. Emerging in the 1980s, the classic bike scene has weathered ups and downs, although not to the extent of the cycles of boom and bust that have characterized its classic car equivalent. Still, for anyone who remembers the gloomy years when the British motorcycle industry went into terminal arrest, American icon Harley-Davidson suffered through the dismal stretch of AMF ownership, and the only two-wheeled vehicles people appeared willing to buy came from Japan, it has to be a source of satisfaction to see the enthusiasm, resourcefulness, and camaraderie that today unite thousands and thousands of people, from high-end collectors to oily-rag types, across geographic and cultural divides. The classic bike scene is here to stay, and as long as there’s an old motorcycle waiting to be rescued and returned to the purpose for which it was originally built, someone will take up the challenge.


Brough Superior Black Alpine 680 (1932) [Fig.1]

Ten years ago, when the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies published its first issue, the Brough Superior SS100 was the Holy Grail for enthusiasts of classic motorcycles with the Vincent Black Lightning only a short distance behind; top spot among bikes that did not quite inhabit these sacred precincts was held by the pre-unit construction Triumph T120 Bonneville.[1] Ten years later, little seems to have changed. Of the “Top 20 Most Expensive Motorcycles” listed by Paul d’Orléans on The Vintagent blogsite, eight are Brough Superiors, either SS80s or SS100s, and four are HRD-Vincents, two of them prewar Rapides and the other two postwar Black Lightnings.[2] Broughs continue to astonish at auction, usually exceeding estimates placed by experts who purport to know the marque best. In October 2012 the British auction house H&H sold an SS80 that George Brough himself had driven to victory in all but one of the over fifty races in which it was entered in 1922 and 1923—popularly known as “Old Bill”—for £291,000 or just under $470,000. H&H’s previous highest Brough sale, a 1929 SS100 put on the block in 2010, collected £286,000 or $460,000, a record for a motorcycle sold at auction at that time.[3] If that’s not enough to prove the point, at its June 2014 Banbury Run sale Bonhams obtained £91,000 or $153,000 for a 1955 Vincent Black Prince, a fibreglass-paneled version of the Black Shadow, which had provided the basis for the Black Lightning. The Black Prince had been disassembled forty years before; still in pieces, it sold for four times the auctioneers’ estimate and set a record price for the model.[4]

The iconic status of Broughs and Vincents and their near relations from Birmingham and Coventry remains such that Simon Hargreaves, writing on the upsurge of sales of naked—i.e., unfaired—motorcycles in the United Kingdom, begins with the obvious reference points: “Pretty much since the motorcycle was invented, Britain’s two-wheeled gentlefolk have preferred them delivered with a sporting bent. From Brough Superior to Vincent Black Shadow, Manx Norton to Bonneville…they were all, give and take, among the leading sportsbikes of their day.”[5] Catching the same scent, in 2014 the motorcycle correspondent for The New York Times had to admit the powerful visual impact of Ducati’s newest edition of its Monster superbike, devoid of body panels and echoing “an elemental style with a hint of a rowdy streak,” even as he complained about the glare from too much exposed steel frame as well as an all-too-visible radiator cap.[6] To my knowledge no one has ever criticized the amount of metal that shows on a Brough or a Vincent—although the first 1000cc v-twins made in Stevenage were labeled, first disapprovingly then affectionately, “the plumber’s nightmare”—and the “classic” Ducati v-twin has always seemed to give a subtle nod of indebtedness to its British forerunners.

The near reverence accorded to a Brough or a Vincent in comparison to a German or Italian counterpart that might have been a technical notch or two ahead and may even have had a performance edge reminds us of the Anglophilism that has characterized the classic bike scene right from the start. Translated into monetary values, there is something more involved here than the relative scarcity of a particular model or the competition history that may be attached to it. Whether it’s cars or motorcycles, subjective preferences often outweigh objective valuations; otherwise what explains the quantifiably greater desirability of a Ferrari over a Maserati or of a Triumph over a BSA? In most instances an old motorcycle, like a new one, is a commodity and in the marketplace of desire, rational choices do not always prevail. The sale of a single Brough Superior, especially if it is a “legendary” one, will garner more attention than, say, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a private collection of more than seventy MV Agustas that went on the auction block in California in 2012. In that instance, the effort to sell the entire collection as a single lot failed, although a half-year later most of the MVs were auctioned off individually for a round sum of $800,000.[7] Yet one Brough Superior by itself can pull in half or more of that amount. It takes a very special German or Italian or American bike to overcome the built-in advantage that the long-expired British marques still enjoy.

To the degree that auction sales reflect the overall classic bike scene, two developments in the last ten years are worth noting. First, the prices that sellers ask and buyers are willing to pay have remained strong, seemingly resistant to real-world economic and financial fluctuations. Of course, the classic bike market has had instances of over-hype where even venerable auction houses get carried away with the historical or technical singularity of a particular machine. In 2011 Bonhams announced that it would offer one of only four early 1950s AJS E95 racers built in the famed AMC race shop in London—popularly known, like their E90 predecessors, as “Porcupines”—with an estimated value between $750,000 and $950,000. The somewhat breathless publicity that followed edged the bike‘s value toward the one-million-dollar mark, although not everyone was convinced that it was “the single most important British motorcycle ever made.”[8] In an online posting, technology guru Mike Hanlon pointed out that AJS had won the 1949 Motorcycle World Championship with an E90, the original “Porcupine,” while the E95 had not been able to repeat that accomplishment. “I can’t see why this bike should become the most expensive motorcycle ever sold,” Hanlon scoffed. “It just doesn’t make sense. The only thing this bike shares with the 1949 world championship machine is the nickname.”[9] At the Quail Lodge sale in California that August, a measure of sobriety appeared to set in as buyers passed on the E95. According to reports, Bonhams subsequently brokered a private sale at around $675,000, below its low-end estimate.[10]

In fact, a one-million-dollar motorcycle sale had already occurred, although at a lesser level of publicity. The bike in question is one of the most famous in motorcycle lore. Not surprisingly, it’s a Vincent, the specially-tuned Black Shadow on which Rollie Free set a world record of 150.313 mph in a two-way run at Bonneville in 1948. The “bathing suit” photograph of Free’s record run is one of the icons of motorcycle imagery and brought Vincent the kind of publicity that money couldn’t buy. The bike was actually owned by California businessman John Edgar, who later rode it on the street before letting it go for a couple of hundred dollars. It ended up in Michigan where it was eventually acquired by Texas collector Herb Harris, who commissioned a complete restoration to its Bonneville specifications. In December 2010 Harris sold the bike to fellow collector William “Chip” Connor at either 1 or 1.1 million dollars, depending on the source. While still in Herb Harris’s possession, the Rollie Free Black Shadow was exhibited at the 2009 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, one of only eight motorcycles admitted for the first time to America’s most prestigious classic automobile venue. In 2011 the “one-million-dollar motorcycle” was granted pride of place at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering, where the organizers described it as “the world’s most famous motorcycle.”[11] A year later, at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in Florida, new owner Chip Connor proudly showed off if not the world’s most famous motorcycle, certainly the world’s most famous, and expensive, Vincent.[12]

The prices Broughs and Vincents command point up a second development on the auction front that has given some enthusiasts pause—the growing interest in vintage and classic bikes on the part of high-end automobile collectors. Their presence is not the only factor driving up motorcycle values, but certainly it has played a part in Broughs, Vincents, and a number of other bikes of relative rarity or with special provenance being added to investment portfolios. Writing as The Vintagent, Paul d’Orléans encapsulated this phenomenon neatly: “While best known in the motoring world for his collection of exquisite cars, Ralph Lauren is one savvy character, and it’s merely a matter of time before we see his silver-haired visage at Pebble Beach, standing beside some outrageous two-wheeled acquisition.”[13] In fact Lauren was quick to capitalize on the interest in old bikes in his advertising, appropriating the “Motorcycle Diaries” reference for his “Style Guide” and assuring customers who aspired to the “moto lifestyle” that wearing his designs was all that was needed—“no motorcycle license required.”[14] In the fall of 2013 Ralph Lauren hosted a “Vintage Motorcycle Event” at his “Double RL” flagship store in SoHo, with several World War I-era American classics borrowed from the Motorcyclepedia Museum in Newburgh, New York.[15] A few months later the “Double RL” store in Paris staged a similar event with a much larger array of old and new bikes, a ride past the city’s landmarks, and a glossy promotional video posted on YouTube. As one tag read, “Who’d have thought bike clinics could blend so seamlessly with fashion launches?”[16]

For the average enthusiast Broughs and Vincents have long been out of reach, and in the last twenty years or so BSA Gold Stars and Velocette Thruxtons have climbed into the “highly-valued” category.[17] But now bread-and-butter 650 and 750cc BSA, Triumph, and Norton twins—especially if they were “tweaked” at the factory—are getting pricey, as are the always desirable big road bikes from Ducati, BMW, and Moto Guzzi. Race machines exist in their own separate category, with ones boasting a “works” history climbing fastest of all. As more big money flows into the classic bike scene, some of it fueled by speculative intent, enthusiasts have to worry not only about acquiring the bike of their dreams, but also about seeing that bike in action on the road or at a vintage racing event. Not without cause, both The Vintagent blogsite and Classic Motorcycles, the leading American magazine on the subject, carry the same admonition: “Ride Them as the Maker Intended” for the former, “Ride ’Em, Don’t Hide ’Em” for the latter.

It’s always a bit of a trick to transition from the world of classic cars to that of classic motorcycles. Still, an interview given by Steve Earle, founder of the Monterey Historic Races, at the height of the August 2014 concours, auction, and wine-and-cheese season in California captured the situation that seems increasingly to face his two-wheeled counterparts. Looking back over a more than forty-year career in vintage automobile racing, Earle reflected on the question “where have all the great cars gone?” As late as the early 2000s, the historic races that for three decades had been run at the Laguna Seca racetrack on the Monterey Peninsula had drawn a dozen or more Ferrari GTOs. Today the organizers—Earle had his contract canceled in 2010 and now manages the smaller Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival in the California wine country—are lucky if a single GTO shows up. His analysis of what has happened to the classic car-racing scene is worth quoting at length, for it describes what now may be encroaching on its motorcycle equivalent. “Gradually the cars started going away,” Earle recalls.

Then you’re looking at, who’s buying these cars? Well, it’s no longer the enthusiast. It took a while to realize, but with the economic structure, while the papers were saying it’s all negative, it had been a very positive period for some guys. They were doing extremely well, and they’d sell their business or whatever and they had money and they were indulging in it. Guys that had made hundreds of millions of dollars suddenly had no problem paying $50 million for a car. The sad part is, they didn’t run it, they didn’t do anything with it, it just went away. It turns out many of them were buying cars as a place to put money. You couldn’t just leave that as liquid cash, put it in a bank and get interest on it—because the banks wouldn’t pay any interest. I mean, whoever heard of going to a bank with a million dollars and they wouldn’t give you anything for it? So that element started buying cars, and it wasn’t like buying art, where you could at least hang it on their wall and somebody could see it. In many cases the cars just stayed in a garage or a shop somewhere.[18]

By every indication the market in classic cars continues to balloon even if some of the more fantastic speculations have proven unfounded. One of those same Ferrari GTOs was on sale by Bonhams at Monterey and generated pre-auction estimates over $60 million, which would have doubled Bonhams’ previous record set in 2013 with a W196 Mercedes GP car once driven by Juan Manuel Fangio. The Ferrari did post a new record at $38 million, a more reasonable sum by some reckonings.[19] Looking on, Paul d’Orléans summed it up in customary fashion: “One family ownership for 49 years, but geez, what exactly are we buying here, for a car which could be wholly reproduced for under $250k? The perfume of history? Count your lucky stars most hedge-funders don’t like motorcycles.”[20] Yet a year and a half earlier The Vintagent had worried about the influx of “new” money into the old bike market, a development which—taken together with the increasingly fierce competition among the big-name auction houses—implied that prices for desirable makes and models could only go in one direction.[21] At Monterey in 2014 the major houses took in $430 million in sales, more than $100 million better than their take on the Peninsula the year before.[22] While these numbers lend perspective on the recent traffic in Broughs and Vincents, it seems indisputable where the trajectory in classic bikes is pointing.

On the upside of the growing interest in classic motorcycles, whether among investors or enthusiasts, we’re seeing more and more of them in action not just on the road, but on the racetrack as well. Attendance at the top-rank vintage and classic automobile and motorcycle events continues to increase, with the Goodwood Festival of Speed in June and the Goodwood Revival in September setting new records one year after another. 200,000 visitors attended the Festival of Speed in 2014, some drawn by the presence of Sir John Surtees on the fiftieth anniversary of his singular accomplishment of adding the Formula I Drivers Championship to his several motorcycle world championships. Once again, the highlight at Goodwood was the one-mile hillclimb past Lord March’s country house, run by both cars and bikes. In the latter category, a cluster of Suzuki RG500s went up the hill to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of their introduction as well as Barry Sheene’s first world championship win on the bike in 1976, while Stuart Graham, son of 1949 world champion Les Graham, thrilled the crowd on the same four-cylinder Honda RC164 with which Jim Redman took his second championship in the 250cc class in 1963. For the more modern-minded, three-time world champion Freddie Spencer climbed the hill on one of Honda’s four-cylinder NSR500s, considered by many to be the most successful 500cc racer in GP history.[23]

While at both Goodwood events motorcycles remain a decided minority, increasingly they are asserting their presence and laying their claim on spectators’ attention and admiration. At the 2013 Revival the Barry Sheene Memorial Trophy race featured iconic machines from the 1960s, single-cylinder Manxes and G50s, twin-cylinder BMWs and Hondas, and MV Agusta triples.[24] In 2014 the Memorial Trophy race was a field day for British classics, with a Vincent Rapide, three Norton Manxes, two Norton Dominators, two BSA Gold Stars, and a Matchless G50 taking nine of the ten top spots in the combined two-race totals. The sole interloper in the top ten was a Gilera Saturno, one of the few 500cc singles that ever gave the Brits a run for the money. In the awards ceremony, the Norton Manx placed among the top ten automobiles (!).[25]

Two years into its rebranding as the Isle of Man Festival of Motorcycling, the two-week event in the second half of August 2014—what used to be the Manx GP—has continued to attract growing numbers of competitors and spectators. For the 2013 outing the Steam Packet Ferry delivered the highest number of passengers and bikes to the island in ten years, and the 2014 edition saw further increases in those numbers; no complaints at the Ferry Terminal in Douglas. The 500cc Classic TT produced a good turn-out of Manxes and their erstwhile nemesis, the twin-cylinder Patons, along with some G50s and a mix of Hondas. Ten-time TT winner Ian Lougher brought his Paton home to first, reinforcing the Italian machine’s current superiority in 500cc racing on the island; Dan Cooper and Bruce Anstey, both on Manxes, finished second and third. The 350cc Classic TT featured the predictable assortment of Manxes, AJS 7Rs, and Aermacchis, as well as 250cc Suzukis running with their bigger cousins. The Senior Manx GP, concluding the fortnight on the island, was organized around a 1980s theme to recognize Joey Dunlop’s record twenty-six wins in the TT. From America Dave Roper showed up on the same Team Obsolete G50 with which he won the first and only Historic TT thirty years before. Heavily promoted by the British motorcycle press, the Festival of Motorcycles is now celebrated as “the real TT” and as “an event that already feels like the best classic race in the world.”[26]

America’s answer to Goodwood, if on a smaller scale, the Barber Vintage Festival held just outside Birmingham, Alabama celebrated its tenth anniversary in October 2014 by posting record attendance figures. Benefiting from the presence of the US’s premier classic motorcycle museum, the Barber meet has drawn consistently larger crowds attracted not only by the chance to see legendary American, British, and European bikes rounding the purpose-built track at something approaching racing speeds, but also by the opportunity to sit in on workshops on restoration techniques and to sample the wares of hundreds of vendors. With 65,000 enthusiasts present from forty-eight out of fifty states, the three-day event this past fall confirmed the strength of the classic bike scene on this side of the pond. As the featured marque, about fifty Vincents were in attendance including Gene Brown’s 1932 Python Sport, Best in Show at Quail, and Paul Pflugfelder’s 1947 Series B Rapide better known as “Gunga Din,” the test vehicle from which the Black Shadow and the Black Lightning were developed.[27] Triumph Motorcycles of America, meet’s official sponsor, showed an Ace Café special edition of the 865cc Thruxton, 325 examples of which will go on sale in the US at the start of 2015. The UK, in contrast, will only get 100 of copies, signaling where Triumph believes its “classic” models are doing best.[28]

The Ace Café Thruxton is one of several special edition models the Hinckley company announced in 2014, spurring cynics to suggest that the parts bins are being emptied to make way for the next iteration of Britain’s most iconic parallel twin. Differing only in paint schemes and hardware, the limited edition models represent a tiny fraction of Triumph’s total production, a figure that has grown slowly but steadily over the last few years. In 2012-2013 Triumph’s total sales pushed past the 50,000 mark for the first time since the marque was revived thirty years earlier. Revenue from sales also set a new record, at £368 million or just under $600 million. In view of the persistent weakness of the European economies, including in the key markets of France, Italy, and Spain, Triumph’s performance has to be considered strong. With a range of twenty-plus models in six different rider categories, Triumph ships over eighty percent of its production abroad, twenty-five per cent of that going to North America. Classic models—the Bonneville, the Thruxton, and the Scrambler—account for about twenty percent of total sales. Selling somewhere around 10,000 bikes in the US a year falls short of Triumph’s market projections, but owner John Bloor has never expressed any wish to see his company grow into a mammoth firm. Interviewed four years ago, Triumph North America’s CEO Greg Heichelbeck was candid about the company’s successes, and some of its disappointments:

The biggest thing is something that comes with a growing brand and that is that we need more brand awareness and advertising. There are lots of ways to reach customers, like movies, marketing alliances and partnerships, some of which are things we haven’t done or are working on….One of the things I noticed when I first came into it was that the foundation was already there. We’re going to grow smartly. While I’d like to see volume, I’m not going to risk brand image or dealer profitability. While I don’t think it’s a volume brand, it’s not the right size, right now. We make too good a brand, too good a quality motorcycle in each one of our segments to settle for a niche market share of 10,000 bikes. We can be more than that. If we’re sitting here five years from now and we’re still selling 10,000 units we’ve got a problem. I’ll be the first person to fire myself if that happens.[29]

As it turns out, Heichelbeck was a bit too generous with his time frame. He was out by June 2014, despite three years of sales growth. Dealer dissatisfaction may have had something to do with it; or maybe twenty years’ experience at Harley-Davidson proved less an asset than he expected in moving over to the culture of an equally famous brand.

Few enthusiasts would quarrel with John Bloor’s success with Triumph, or for that matter with Stuart Garner’s dogged efforts to make Norton a going concern once more.[30] Another development, while not involving bikes themselves, does not sit so well with enthusiasts or at least with traditionalists. We have already seen how Ralph Lauren jumped on the classic motorcycle scene to promote his brand of “biker chic,” and it was predictable that he would not be alone. The intersection of motorcycling and fashion is nothing new, going back to the 1950s when Marlon Brando introduced the black leather jacket into popular culture in The Wild One and created an image that was reified by a succession of rock stars from Jim Morrison to Axl Rose. Perhaps because of these mass-cult identifications, people who actually rode classic bikes eschewed the black leather look in favor of racing leathers patterned on those worn by racetrack champions like Geoff Duke, Mike Hailwood, and Giacomo Agostini or the more utilitarian gear sold by the Belstaff and Barbour companies. What has happened more recently may be off-putting for an enthusiast community that places great value in loyalty to marques and even individual models and appreciates history as something that is earned rather than invented or appropriated.

Founded in the 1920s, Staffordshire-based Belstaff earned its enviable reputation by providing semi-indestructible waxed cotton jackets to generations of off-road riders as well as outfitting legendary characters like T. E. Lawrence, Amelia Earhart, and Che Guevara. In addition to their practical use on and off the road, Belstaffs had an undefineable “cool” factor; Steve McQueen wore them and in the US no one was more identified with coolness than the California actor, Le Mans driver, and motorcycle competitor. But by the 1990s Belstaff had fallen on hard times and was forced to close its British factories. The black-and-white photographs of trials riders on their AJSes, Ariels, DOTs, and Greeves, invariably wearing Belstaffs, that The Classic Motorcycle regularly publishes from its vast archive began to look like images of a time long past. In 2005 the Belstaff brand was acquired by Italian businessman and motorcycle enthusiast Franco Malenotti, who had worked with the British company since the 1980s. Malenotti relocated production to Venice, put his two sons Manuele and Michele in charge, and began opening outlets in Britain and Europe. But the new jackets, along with trousers and accessories, were not your father’s or your grandfather’s Belstaffs; they were leaner, far more expensive, and modeled by big name British and American film stars. The logic to all of this was summed up in a 2010 interview in The Independent (London) where Manuele Malenotti explained, “It started as a brand that was dedicated to motorcycles and has now become a lifestyle brand….Today it’s more important to have protective and functional clothing because everybody is moving faster and travelling more.”[31] Whether eleven-times British trials champion Sammy Miller, who can still wrestle a 500cc Ariel HT5 up a steep hill, would agree has not been made public.

In 2011 Belstaff was sold again, the Malenottis reportedly having amassed debts exceeding 40 million euros. The buyer was the Vienna-based Labelux Group, and the purchase price was a little over 100 million euros. The new owner specializes in luxury brands with a global reach, among them the Swiss shoe and handbag maker Bally, the Italian leather vendor Zagliani, and the celebrity-favorite shoe designer Jimmy Choo. Asked about the Belstaff purchase, Labelux CEO Reinhard Mieck explained, “Belstaff is a unique asset with great heritage, a strong following, and a very promising future as a major international luxury brand.”[32] Within a year, Labelux had revamped the existing Belstaff shops and opened new ones in Milan, Munich, and New York while at the same time creating a strong online presence to reach customers who had never heard of Sammy Miller. In 2013 Belstaff’s director of online marketing told a London interviewer, “Our customers are not people who have come along and spent £40, they have spent a lot more so they have invested in us. It is about keeping that alive and working out ways to make every customer feel special.”[33] The result has been a splash of advertisements, in tony magazines like GQ, Esquire, and Essential Homme, with the likes of David Beckham and Ewan McGregor disporting themselves amidst carefully arranged and beautifully patina-ed Triumphs, BMWs, Nortons, and Velocettes—give the art director a plaudit for that last one. With as many designs for women as for men, the “new” Belstaff is a far cry from the jackets that kept trials riders and hill climbers warm, dry, and safe from branches, brambles, and a host of other dangers when the idea of having £40, or its American equivalent, to spend on a fashion accessory, motorcycle related or not, would have been an extreme act of imagination. If needed to drive the point home, the August 2014 issue of the American fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar, under the lead “Biker Chic,” featured a Belstaff lady’s bag, at only $2,295, among an array of “moto-style accessories for an updated edge.”[34]

The Belstaff saga was but one among a number of incursions into the vintage and classic bike scene by high-end corporate fashion looking for that “updated edge.” In 2012 the Manelottis were back, announcing their acquisition of the Matchless name. One of Britain’s most venerable motorcycle manufacturers, winner of the first-ever Tourist Trophy Race on the Isle of Man in 1907, Matchless along with its fellow make AJS had succumbed to the combination of an overly conservative management philosophy and the onslaught of faster, cheaper, and more easily maintained Japanese motorcycles in the 1960s. In 2006 a group of Greek motorcycle enthusiasts bought the UK and European rights to Matchless for £45,000 or a little over $70,000. Their intention was to revive the historic marque, using production facilities in England, with a state-of-the-art road bike to be followed by a competition variant. Within a couple of years the global economic slump, along with Greece’s financial woes inside the European Union, brought these plans to an end. At this point the Malenottis, flush with cash from the sale of Belstaff, stepped in. The Malenottis quickly turned Matchless into a line of glamorous clothing and accessories, the same model they had used in marketing Belstaff to a very different public than its traditional customer base.

Not ones to set their sights low, the Malenottis scored a coup in 2013 when they obtained the services of British supermodel Kate Moss to headline the advertising campaign for Matchless fashions. Moss had previously modeled for Belstaff, and her bad girl reputation insured interest on the part of celebrity-watchers. Moss’s first photo shoots for the Matchless campaign lived up to expectations. Wearing tight leather shorts and a variety of Matchless-tagged jackets, the model draped herself langorously atop or alongside a Matchless twin in a gritty industrial setting. The press got some things wrong, in one case describing Moss’s bike as the Triumph Thunderbird Marlon Brando rode in The Wild One, in another getting the make right but reporting that the bike used for the shoot was the actual G9 that had appeared in the film although not ridden by Brando himself.[35] Some of the accompanying copy was also off-mark, for example reading, “The brand focuses on performance and technical fabrics for off-road outwear and the alliance between motorcycling and design. The Matchless tradition is one of British elegance and luxury in urban mobility as well as technical innovation, originally conveyed in their iconic 1940s’ advertising campaigns.”[36] While this description may have fit the motorcycles Matchless produced prior to World War II, the bikes riders knew from the 1950s and 1960s put more emphasis on the quality of build and finish than on “luxury and elegance.” Most Matchless owners were more interested in reliability than in engineering breakthroughs—AMC’s directors were happy to leave the latter to the Japanese, ultimately to their company’s demise. Members of the AJS & Matchless Owners Club were appalled, even if more than one expressed an interest in buying a Matchless jacket if it came pre-worn by Kate Moss.[37] The ad campaign, expanded into a comprehensive online site, must have been successful, as Moss was back in 2014, this time in full leathers on what looked to be a desert sojourn.[38]

Making good on a promise, the Malenottis then took the next step and, with all the publicity attendant to a Milan opening, announced the introduction of the first new Matchless motorcycle since Les Harris stopped making the Rotax-engined G80 in 1990. Dubbed the Model X Reloaded, the new Matchless references the much-admired series of 1000cc v-twins the London factory produced in the 1930s, having decided to build their own motors rather than continuing to depend on proprietary engines from JAP. Powered by an American-sourced S&S 1916cc v-twin motor—usually found fitted into Harley-Davidsons—and boasting lots of innovative technology along with such retro touches as a single-seat saddle and fishtail-styled exhausts, the Model X Reloaded is planned to go into production in 2015.[39] Reaction on the part of the AJS & Matchless Owners Club has generally been derisive—an understandable response to what is effectively a radical inversion of the values most classic bike enthusiasts profess. We could soon be looking at a 2000cc motorcycle being marketed as a fashion accessory to a $1000 leather jacket.

With stores in London, Paris, Milan, and New York and sales space in other high-end retailers, the Malenotti-owned Matchless makes the most of marque history and usually manages to turn out one of the real things whenever a special event is staged. The company’s web pages reinforce the impression of elegance and exclusivity, but are a bit short on accuracy and include photographs of Matchless-garbed models on Triumphs and Nortons as well as on the namesake machines. But what will most likely stop the owner of a Matchless in his tracks, especially if the bike has been in his hands for a long time, are the prices being asked to obtain a piece of wearable history from “the pioneer of luxury urban mobility.” According to the web site, prices for men’s leather jackets range from £999 ($1,495) to £1,119 ($1,895) while women are asked to pay as much as £1,699 ($2,595) for the smaller equivalents. That top-of-the-line $2,595 price tag is attached to the “Kate” sheepskin jacket, named for you know who. The Matchless prices are comparable to the leather jackets offered by the “new” Belstaff, which also markets traditionally-styled wax cotton jackets for a bargain price between £600 ($890) to £900 ($1,340).[40] Of course the current Belstaff and Matchless jackets are not intended for use in trials or scrambles or for hard road riding; wearing one and laying down a bike at speed is not only potentially hazardous but will be considerably more expensive than in the past. It is not an accident that the Malenottis have chosen to skip the riders’ magazines to advertise their wares, leaving that market open to more reasonably priced, if nowhere as fashionable, alternatives.[41] At least one veteran rider has returned the favor, writing in response to an artfully packaged David Beckham video on the Belstaff web site: “I have worn Belstaff motor cycle jackets since I started motor cycling. The jacket I still use is about 30 years old….but then they were made in Britain and for practical use, not for poncing sods to minse around in. I shall remove the once proud Belstaff badge from my jacket.”[42]

Of course, none of this is particularly new. As Paul d’Orléans has reminded us in a recent column in Motorcycle Rides & Culture, back in the 1960s young and not-so-young males eagerly opened the pages of each new issue of Cycle or Cycle World not so much to find a test ride of the latest roadburner from one of the British manufacturers, but instead to see what eye-catching beauty was straddling it in short shorts and with a beckoning look. In Paul’s words,

You may not study the latest Louis Vuitton or Lanvin pages in Vogue, but if you crack just about any fashion or luxury mag, be prepared for models riding vintage Harleys, Triumphs, and Indians….We’re catching the greatest coupling of fashion and motorcycles since the 1970s, which means the 2010s are kinda the children of those fabulous Norton, Triumph, and BSA ad girls of the sideburn/bellbottom era: groovily unclad babes who are now mothers, if not grandmothers. What started the vogue for vintage? Britt Ekland, Françoise Hardy, and Ann-Margret did a great job of making new bikes sexy in the ’60s, but old bikes and vintage biker gear have played muse to fashionistas since the 1980s.[43]

Paul doesn’t even mention Marianne Faithfull in The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), which put a different translation on the Brando image of the black leather jacket. But he does take note of Kiera Knightley doing a run through the streets of Paris a few years ago, or appearing to, in a Chanel ad. The art director used a beige-colored Ducati for that video, to match Knightley’s catsuit, as well as a stunt rider; perhaps the color coordination ruled out a Brough or a Vincent.[44]

The tie-in between old motorcycles and designer fashion looks to be a one-sided affair, with all the benefits going to the latter and little if anything accruing to the former. If that sounds like an imbalanced relationship, there’s plenty of evidence to point in that direction. Ralph Lauren was using Jaguars and Bentleys in his advertisements long before vintage Triumphs and Velocettes caught his eye. It’s hard to believe that the current values of these top-line British marques owe anything to their appearance in advertisements in GQ, Vanity Fair, or Town and Country. When Jon Hamm, star of the award-winning television series Mad Men, appeared on the cover of style-oriented Best Life in 2008 astride a Matchless twin, the image may have enhanced the actor’s fast-growing fan appeal, but it probably did not translate into higher prices for surviving examples of one of the also-rans to Britain’s more glamorous Triumph and BSA roadsters. Similarly, putting an early postwar rigid-framed AJS in a full-page New York Times ad for the latest Blackberry a couple of years later may have been photogenic enough but did not do much to recommend the venerable British single, especially since it appeared to have broken down, mid-desert, with its rider fumbling to make a repair. Celebrity-sightings on old Harleys and BMWs and even relative rarities like Enfield Interceptors may be gratifying to owners of the real thing; but as the Malenottis would probably tell you, the advertising is meant to sell today’s products not to celebrate yesterday’s. A little late in catching up, the BBC’s online culture pages apparently agree, announcing that the biker look is “one of the coolest commodities,” even if it amounts to nothing more than “indulging in some retail therapy.”[45]

On a note less likely to make enthusiasts cringe, the summer of 2014 saw the reappearance of the proud Ariel name, again affixed to a motorcycle. After seven decades of making motorcycles, the Birmingham factory ceased production in 1962, although parent company BSA continued marketing a couple of Ariel models for several more years. In 1999 automobile designer Simon Saunders opened a small factory in Somerset under the Ariel name and began producing a street-legal racecar called the Atom. Using Honda power, the Atom won accolades all around and soon established itself in the low-volume specialist niche where companies like TVR and Caterham had started decades before. With the Atom a success, Saunders and his team turned their attention to building a two-wheeled counterpart. One obstacle they faced was the lack of an engine that would be appropriate to the motorcycle they had in mind. That problem was solved in 2010 when Honda introduced the VFR 1200 with a sixteen-valve v-four engine making upward of 170 horsepower. The Honda four, mounted in an aluminum frame hand-built in the Somerset factory, forged a link between the new Ariel, called the Ace, and the Square Four, the most famous motorcycle to carry the Ariel name. Other than the name, there is nothing classic about the Ace, which in addition to its motor uses Honda wheels, brakes, and electronics. With production slated to begin at the start of 2015, the Ace will be available in two configurations, a sport version for high-performance riding and a cruiser version for slightly less arduous exercise. The base price is projected to be about £20,000 or $35,000, steep by some considerations but a bargain compared to the 1000cc machines from sixty to eighty years ago that top today’s auction results. It’s the best of both worlds, one British bike journalist enthused, envelope-pushing Japanese technology combined with traditional British craftsmanship—“a Japanese/British love child.”[46]

While the success of Triumph and the reappearance of Norton and Ariel, if in modern form, may elicit an approving nod from the classic bike community, other, larger issues cannot be ignored. The rise in prices for the most desirable machines may seem inevitable, but can still be disquieting. The days of a Vincent waiting to be found in a barn are probably gone forever; one would feel lucky to find an A10 Road Rocket, a Norton Dommie, or a Velocette Venom—forget a Thruxton. Even more inevitable is the exhaustion of the inventory of NOS parts from defunct manufacturers. Reproduction spares, even when machined from factory patterns, can be very good, in some cases better than the originals, but it’s always a chancy proposition to get the correct fitment especially when buying from afar. The classic bike magazines, owners’ clubs, and online blogs dedicated to one or another marque provide some measure of security, as does word-of-mouth among enthusiasts; yet even these will probably represent a diminishing resource as the years pile on. Most worrisome, however, is a condition that appears to affect motorcycling in general—the aging of its rider base. No small amount of ink or of web space has been devoted to the unfavorable demographics confronting the motorcycle industry, at least in the US, where the classic bike scene is a small but important sideshow. And it’s not just a matter of the steadily increasing age of the average rider or of the pricing out of entire market sectors where fifteen or twenty thousand dollars for a motorcycle is a stretch too far.

In November 2011 the poet and bike enthusiast Frederick Seidel stirred up a bit of controversy with a piece he published in The New York Times lamenting the end of “the era of the motorcycle.”[47] Simply put, Seidel’s argument was that as a piece of expensive, disposable technology the motorcycle—his example was a Ducati Panigale—has been displaced by the tide of multi-purpose personal devices without which consumers, mostly young male consumers, cannot function on a daily basis let alone legitimate their status, real or imagined, in society. Many of those who responded, often in online forums, turned Seidel’s critique back on the bike companies themselves for concentrating their advertising on flashy, high performance machines capable of 150 mph and requiring a significant measure of skill to use safely on congested roads and highways. With electronic control systems that only someone with an advanced degree would dare to poke into, the contemporary sport bike, like the heavyweight cruiser, appeals to a narrow segment of the market whose limitations have been aggravated by a depressed economy and by stagnant wages and salaries. Triumph, with its broad range of modern and classic models, appears to have avoided this self-designed cul-de-sac; but Triumph sales are just a drop in the bucket in the US motorcycle market. If there is a bright spot, it may just be the classic scene, among riders young and old who like to fix up old bikes, race them on occasional weekends, and enjoy them as much for their faults and eccentricities as for their aesthetics and their “honest” engineering.[48] In London, Adam Kay, co-owner of Untitled Motorcycle, a small customizing shop specializing in BMWs, says it pretty well: “I think that’s why classic bikes have become popular among younger riders. They want to get into doing things with their hands….People want to get their hands dirty and they’re bored with modern bikes they can’t touch. People want to feel stuff and modern bikes are so unemotional. The old stuff, you feel it, you touch it, it’s visceral.”[49]

At least that’s the hope. Otherwise more old Nortons and Guzzis and BMWs will end up in warehouses, in collections, or in Jay Leno’s garage. The first round of motorcycle auctions for 2015 showed no sign of flagging desire on the part of buyers, although mostly big-spenders and dealers looking for bargains rather than home-workshop types with a few extra dollars in their pockets. Almost a thousand bikes were up for grabs in Las Vegas, with Bonhams’ high-profile sale bringing in $4.5 million and Mecum selling three times as many lots for over $7 million. Keeping with tradition, the highest prices—in a couple of instances topping $200,000—went for Broughs and Vincents, although a Matchless G50 with which Dick Mann won an AMA championship in 1963 sold for $115,000 at Bonhams, a record amount for this well-proven rival to Norton’s legendary Manx.[50] As Paul d’Orléans observed in his on-the-spot commentary at the Mecum sale for the NBC Sports Network, there are loads of affordable and restorable old bikes out there, if one is willing to compromise a little on matching numbers and other prerequisites of authenticity. Right now plenty of aficionados of American automobiles from the 1940s and 1950s are probably readying their checkbooks in anticipation of the easing of travel and trade restrictions with Cuba. If classic bikers might consider lifting their self-imposed semi-embargo on anything not manufactured in and around London or in the industrial Midlands, their horizons too can only broaden.

[1] James J. Ward, “Hierarchies of Meaning and Value in the Classic British Bike Scene,” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies 1 (March 2005), at (August 8, 2014).

[2] “Top 20 Most Expensive Motorcycles” (updated November 30, 2014), The Vintagent, at

[3] “‘Old Bill’ Brough Sells for World Record £290K,” MCN, October 25, 2012, at

[4] Sale results at

[5] Simon Hargreaves, “The Rise of the Nakeds,” Motorcycle Sport & Leisure, August 2014, 28-29.

[6] Norman Mayersohn, “A Ducati That Proudly Bares All,” The New York Times, July 3, 2014, AU3.

[7] “Vegas 2013: The Buyers Are Back,” The Vintagent, January 16, 2013, at

[8] Quotation from Alan Cathcart, “Meet the $1,000,000 Motorcycle,” Motorcycle Sport & Leisure, August 2011, 30-38.

[9] Mike Hanlon, “Does This AJS Porcupine Deserve to Become the World’s Most Expensive Motorcycle?” in Gizmag, May 19, 2011, at

[10] Sale report at

[11] “Rollie Free ‘Bathing Suit’ Vincent at Quail,” The Vintagent, February 16, 2011, at; John L. Stein, “The First $1 Million Motorcycle,” Sports Car Market, December 12, 2011, at; Aaron Frank, “Kurt Carlson Resurrects the Vincent Bonneville Legend,” Motorcyclist Magazine, February 21, 2012, at

[12] “Rare Vincent Motorcycles at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance,” Motorcycle Classics, April 12, 2012, at

[13] “Men’s File Party at Ralph Lauren,” The Vintagent, October 25, 2010, at

[14] “Motorcycle Diaries,” RL Style Guide, Fall 2013, at In this instance, no Broughs or Vincents seem to have been needed, just a rather prosaic 650cc BSA twin although, admittedly, very nicely fitted out.

[15] “Double RL Vintage Motorcycle Event,” photographed by Chad Davis, October 13, 2013, at

[16] “Ralph Lauren Embraces the Biker for Stylish Parisian Outing,” The Fashionisto, June 6, 2014, at; “RRL Riders Tour Paris 2014,” at

[17] It cannot be an accident that a recent article on British automobile collector Michael Culhane, who specializes in classic Jaguars, features as its pièce de résistance a gleaming DBD34 Gold Star. See Dale Brinnon, “‘If I Had More Space There Would Be More Cars,’” Thoroughbred & Classic Cars, August 2014, 94-98.

[18] Pete Lyons, Interview with Steve Earle, Vintage Motorsport, September/October 2014, 84-90.

[19] Joseph Seminetto, “Bonhams—The Quail Lodge Auction,” Sports Car Market, November 2014, 110.

[20] The Vintagent, Facebook post, August 15, 2014, at

[21] “Las Vegas 2012: Trends…,” The Vintagent, January 22, 2012, at

[22] Rob Sass, “Records Smashed as Usual, but Surprises as Well,” The New York Times, August 24, 2014, Automobiles, 2.

[23] Mike Nicks, “Goodwood Festival of Speed,” Classic Bike, August 2014, 18-22; “Honda at the Goodwood Festival of Speed 2014,” at

[24] Roland Brown, “Goodwood Revival 2013: Motorcycle Racing,” The Telegraph, September 13, 2013, at

[25] “Goodwood Revival: 12th/13th/14th September,” Timing Solutions Ltd., at; James Robinson, “Time Travellers,” The Classic Motorcycle, November 2014, 24-26.

[26] Mike Nicks and Rupert Paul, “Tales from Classic Island,” MCN Sport, Special Retro Issue, September 2014, 16-33. Cf. Mat Oxley, John Naish, and Ben Stiller, “Island of Hope and Glory,” Classic Bike, October 2014, 54-65.

[27] Richard Backus, “Barber Vintage Festival Sets Attendance Record,” Motorcycle Classics, October 15, 2014, at

[28] “Triumph Thruxton Ace Special Edition Introduced at Barber Vintage Festival,” Triumph Motorcycles (America) press release, October 12, 2014, at

[29] Bruce Steever, “New Challenges, New Gains for Triumph Motorcycles,” December 22, 2010, at For Triumph’s 2012-2013 sales figures, see Andy Downes, “Triumph Announces 2013 Financial Results,” MCN, December 13, 2013, at

[30] For an overview, including the progress at Norton, see Roland Gribben, “The Great British Motorcycle Comeback,” The Telegraph, July 20, 2014, at

[31] Ian Burrell, “How Did an Old-Fashioned British Manufacturer of Motorbike Clobber Become the Label of Choice for the Hollywood Set?” The Independent, January 9, 2010, at

[32]Vanessa Friedman, “Why Did Labelux Buy Belstaff?” Financial Times (London), June 9, 2011, at In 2014 Labelux itself was restructured, with its luxury brands moving to German parent company JAB Holdings.

[33] Lucy Handley, “Luxury Has Caught Up But Now It Has the Chance to Take Over,” Marketing Week (London), February 7, 2013, at

[34] “Fashion, Trends, and Shopping Guides,” Harper’s Bazaar, August 2014, 104.

[35] See, e.g., Samantha Conti, “Kate Moss Stars in Matchless Campaign,” Women’s Wear Daily, March 15, 2013, at; Naomi Attwood, “Kate Moss’s Racy Motorcycle Shoot for Matchless,” Grazia Daily, March 19, 2013, at

[36] “Matchless—Behind the Brand,” Accent (Leeds), July 10, 2013, at

[37] “Kate Moss Stars in Matchless Campaign,” AJS & Matchless Owners Club Forum, March 15 et seq., 2013, at

[38] “Kate Moss in Matchless London’s Fall/Winter 2014 Ad Campaign,” Fashion Sizzle, August 9, 2014, at

[39] “Matchless Presents the Model X Reloaded in Milan,” November 4, 2014, photo story at

[40] Prices as of September 2014 at and

[41] Marketing Director Michele Malenotti has insisted that the two companies are targeting different customer bases, Belstaff those who like luxury fashion and Matchless the urban buyer who wants “a jacket that stands the test of time….a jacket you can pass down to your son, for instance.” See Tom Bottomley, “Interview: Michele Malenotti,” MWB Magazine, January 24, 2014, at

[42] Stephanie Hirschmiller, “David Beckham’s Countryside Caper for Belstaff,” The Telegraph, November 7, 2013, at

[43] Paul d’Orléans, “Bike: The New Black,” Motorcycle Rides & Culture, September/October 2014, 12.

[44] For a look, see “Coco Mademoiselle: Behind the Scenes,” at

[45] Dylan Jones, “Biker Chic: Revving up Rebellion,” BBC Culture, January 10, 2015, at

[46] Alastair Fagan, “Ariel Ace,” Fast Bikes, September 2014, 56-59. Cf. Mick Duckworth and Michael Neeves, “Ariel: Back to the Future,” Classic Bike, September 2014, 6-7.

[47] Frederick Seidel, “Is the Era of the Motorcycle Over?” The New York Times, November 5, 2011, SR4.

[48] See, e.g., David Russell, “Passing It On: Youth and the Future of Vintage Motorcycle Clubs,” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies 10/1 (Spring 2014), at 2014/IJMS_Artcl.Russell.html.

[49] Interview with Adam Kay, Classic Bike Guide, November 2014, 44-47.

[50] Paul d’Orléans, “Las Vegas Auction Report,” Cycle World, January 16, 2015, at

Image Attributions
[Fig.1] Brough Superior Black Alpine 680 (1932) by Thesupermat (Own Work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

James J. Ward is Professor of History at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  His degrees are from Middlebury College and New York University.  His enthusiasm for British motorcycles began when he over-wintered in a fraternity house room with a DBD34 Gold Star and became permanent with the subsequent acquisition of a Velocette Thruxton (in the days when British singles were being given away). Both were relinquished many years ago, at prices that are painful to contemplate given what these classics now command in the marketplace. The old adage once more, “if I only knew then…”

Bookmark the permalink.

One Comment

  1. Oops, someone’s wrong on the internet … In the spirit of peer review over such a critical issue (!).

    I wanted to pick up on one minor detail, i.e. that “Belstaffs had an undefineable “cool” factor”. As a British biker since the 1970s, I would say that Belstaff’s wax cotton did not have any cool factor whatsoever. Quite the opposite, they were somewhere between uncool and purgatory.

    Back in the day, the choice of waterproofs was pretty much limited to waxed cotton, trawlermen’s style thick PVC over-trousers, jackets or smocks, and ex-Army gear. Much of it, even until the 70s and early 80s, being ex-WWII or National Service.

    The choice between wearing Belstaffs and a leather jacket on the road was pretty much the defining factor between a rallyist or ‘motorcycle commuter/enthusiast’, and a rocker or a “biker”, with the cool factor obviously leaning towards the latter.

    Belstaffs were cold, stank, messed up long hair with the wax, and did not give protection in a crash therefore limiting one’s “adventure”. Yes, many bikers would have a set to wear over their leathers in inclement weather. But they still really did not work well, leading to ending up with two layers of baggy sogginess as to cover one’s leathers they had to be oversized. On their own, they would have to worn over several layers of thick jerseys in Winter.

    They were also the uniform of trials riders and trials riding was most certainly not considered “cool”. It was the preverse of, generally, a staid elderly clique far away from civilisation in the hills. Referred to only in the back pages of Motorcycle News were competition results were announced.

    Any “coolness” is a modern re-invention based on, I presume, a few pictures of Steve McQueen dressing up European for the ISDT, and investment via the owner/investors. The idea that Belstaff could become such a cool and value brand (is it really?) – in comparison to, say, Lewis Leathers – would have been unbelievable to someone back in the day.

    Perhaps it arises from an Italian fetishisation of “Britishness”?

    Barbour certainly enjoyed this status. I suspect if you look closely, the reborn Belstaff brand was riding on Barbour’s halo effect. If anything, Barbour was the cooler of the two as they were more expensive, exclusive and better finished; a cross over from the “huntin’, shootin’, fishin'” classes and the horsey brigade. Belstaffs were cheap, grubby and motorcyclist by comparison. This dates back to the day when there were division between rockers/bikers and “motorcyclists”.

    Certain Italians have/had a thing for dressing up like the English upper middle classes.

    I suppose it raises minor questions about why dressing up (and riding) like people in old photographs is “cool”, when said people were dreaming of a better brighter future where they were actually warm and dry, and their brakes worked.

    I would say somewhere around the early 80s, things changed and modern (durable nylon), insulated and breathable waterproofs started to appear which everyone but old codgers and tight fisted bastards started adopting to.

    Belstaffs just did not have any level of crash protection, and so could not be worn tight and on their own as they are in the fashion ads.

    Belstaff flirted with a few leather jacket and riding suit designs which were good, but “stylish” and modern rather than hardcore cool in design, and were not widely available or a mainstream choice. What was considered the uniform of “cool” was very conservative and pretty much down to the archetypal lancer front, black leather jacket. Generally, from the rocker era onwards, your typical rocker/biker would ride with his leather jacket and a rolled up pair of plastic trousers on his rack for when it pissed down, augmenting them with rubber Wellington boots, or black plastic bags to cover leather boots, and may be even over his jacket if the going got tough.

    Waxed cotton was horrible to the point of being anti-social. Be careful not to re-cycling marketing hyperbole. One should also remember, in general, how crap, inept and disrespectful of its consumers the British motorcycling industry was during this time.

    (At various points, I used and owned them all and worked in the business).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.